By Kevin Shannahan
1941 was a perilous time for the free world. Nazi Germany held Continental Europe in its grasp. U-Boats roamed the Atlantic, sinking shipping and threatening Britain with starvation. The Luftwaffe and Royal Air Force were locked in combat over the cities of Britain. The fate of Western Civilization hung by a thread.
The Royal Air Force needed to train new pilots to keep up with the demands of the war. With all of Britain’s skies a battlefield, it couldn’t be done at home. The RAF opened the #1 British Flying Training School June 2, 1941 in Terrell, Texas. It was the first of seven schools to be operated across the United States. It was also the largest, training over 2,200 RAF aircrew and 138 American Army Air Corps pilots. After America entered the war, it was the only one to operate throughout WWII. One third of the graduates were killed in the war, a grim testament to the cost of our freedoms.
The students sailed from England to Canada, in itself a dangerous journey in the U-Boat infested Atlantic. Once there, they traveled to Texas by train. As America was officially neutral during the school’s first year and a half of existence, they were discharged from the RAF to regain their commissions after returning to Canada. Their instructors were civilians.
The training was, of necessity, fast paced with half the class flying in the morning and attending class in the afternoon and the other class doing the reverse. In addition to flying, the students learned navigation, gunnery and signals.
Their lives were not all work however. Most of the trainees were barely out of their teens and thousands of miles from home; a home that faced invasion during the early part of the war. They were eventually adopted by the citizens of Terrell. The soda fountain at the Bass and Rutledge drug store was a popular meeting place. One Sunday each month, the squadron would form a Church Parade and march to church. A RAF ensign still hangs in the back of the Church of the Good Shepherd where several of the men had their funeral services after dying in training accidents.
The Terrell Airport hosts an excellent museum devoted the the No. 1 British Flying Training School that is well worth a visit. While there, I met Danielle Best, granddaughter of Terry Hoghton Best. Terry graduated in 1943, survived the war, and passed away in 1975 after building a career in international banking. Danielle was at the museum to learn more about that chapter in her grandfather’s life. She showed me his class photograph and his inclusion in an oral history of the school.
One of the more interesting exhibits is a large aerial map of the southern U.S. with a map of Europe drawn on acetate and superimposed over it. London was placed over Terrell, with the rest of Europe drawn to scale, enabling students to plan and fly missions against Germany while in Texas. Natchitoches Parish was on the border between France and Germany, with the city slightly south of Heidelberg. Shreveport was south of Colonge, France while Berlin was over Winchester, Ark.
Aviation is a dangerous business, all the more so in the 1940s when there was no GPS and many of the things a modern pilot takes for granted. Twenty of the students died while in training and are buried in a section of Terrell’s Oaklawn Cemetery. The War Graves Photographic Project is a volunteer effort to photograph each grave of a Commonwealth service member who died in one of the World Wars. The photos will be placed in a searchable database allowing friends and family to view a grave too distant to easily visit. The Natchitoches Parish Journal has volunteered to photograph the ones in Terrell, Palestine and Orange, Texas and one in Shreveport.
In a fitting coda to this article, when I pulled into the cemetery, a Naval officer and two sailors were standing by an open grave next to the RAF plots. Commander John E. Lawson, USN was being laid to rest that day. Lawson retired from the Navy in 2003 and was one of the volunteers who takes such good care of the RAF graves. It is entirely fitting that he rests in a plot next to theirs. Fair winds and following seas, sir!